The slippery use of ''social justice''
October 19, 2009
Minding the Campus
For educational reformers, the struggle can sometimes be frustrating, in that even successes---such as getting policies that attack academic freedom repealed---generally leave in place the people who designed and implemented those policies in the first place. But, at the very least, such efforts can force ideologues to abandon easy tools for enforcing their orthodoxy.
Take, for instance, the controversy over "dispositions theory." In 2002, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) issued new guidelines requiring education departments that listed social justice as a goal to "include some measure of a candidate's commitment to social justice" when evaluating the "dispositions" of their students.
As soon became clear, the new criteria provided a back door to ensuring ideological conformity among education students. At Brooklyn, Washington State, and Alaska-Fairbanks---all public institutions, covered by the First Amendment---students were punished for voicing opinions on political issues that went against the stands of the one-sided Education faculty. After work from FIRE and ACTA exposed NCATE's wrongdoing, and amidst strong congressional pressure, NCATE backed down, and ungraciously agreed to abandon its requirement. "Critics incorrectly alleged," scowled the organization's then-president, "that NCATE has a 'social justice' requirement. It does not. NCATE 'requirements' are spelled out in the Standards themselves where the phrase 'social justice' does not appear. To most Americans, the phrase 'social justice' is positive and connotes values associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. To critics of the phrase, it is negative and connotes a dangerous if unspecfied [sic] social and political ideological agenda of indoctrination."
The statement was doubly deceptive. No, NCATE didn't have "a 'social justice' requirement": it had a requirement that all Education programs who listed "social justice" as a goal had to individually assess the disposition of each student to promote social justice. Since virtually all Ed programs had such a goal, the guideline amounted to a de facto social justice requirement. Secondly, the issue wasn't how "most Americans" or how "critics of the phrase" defined social justice---but how professors at NCATE-accredited institutions were defining the phrase as they evaluated the "dispositions" of their students.
In any event, NCATE's Executive Board has now clarified its definition of dispositions. It did so after renewing its misleading description of events leading to the clarification ("the term 'social justice,' though well understood by NCATE's institutions, was widely and wildly misinterpreted by commentators not familiar with the workings of NCATE") and admitting that it had received criticism from some faculty ideologues "of caving into pressure."
But despite the self-evident reluctance, NCATE did live up to its agreement with Congress, and dropped the "social justice" de facto requirement. The organization added that it expected "institutions to assess professional dispositions based on observable behaviors in educational settings." And the only two dispositions listed are innocuous: "fairness and the belief that all students can learn."
As for "social justice," the organization's new guidelines---which remain in place through 2015---offer a teacher-centered definition of the term: "When the education profession, the public, and policymakers demand that all children be taught by well prepared teachers, then no child will be left behind and social justice will be advanced." No mention of the phrase "social justice" occurs anywhere else in the current NCATE standards.
So if NCATE isn't enforcing faculty groupthink, what is the organization doing? Offering a heavy dose of education-school pablum: NCATE president Jim Cibulka, for instance, recently unveiled the "urgent imperative" of a "bold redesign of NCATE," citing the "need to transform America's P-12 education system to one that supports higher levels of student learning and success across the spectrum of diverse learners. We are in a period of transition from an older set of societal expectations for our schools to the demands imposed by a global economy."
The usual buzzwords remain in place: "An accreditation system committed to excellence should encourage institutions to move beyond the 'acceptable' level in meeting standards to 'target' level performance. Also, it should afford institutions the option of initiating a 'transformation initiative' that addresses major issues and challenges in our profession." And politically correct jargon is everywhere in NCATE documents: the organizations now describes students with learning disabilities as "students with exceptionalities."
The NCATE redesign that Cibulka has heralded is especially short on content: "The rise of the global economy demands that teachers become even more effective in enhancing P-12 student learning to help maintain America's ability to compete in the world marketplace. Educator preparation programs, therefore, are under scrutiny as never before. For example, the effectiveness of their graduates is increasingly being tracked by states to help them make decisions on funding only the highest performing, and most cost-effective, programs."
This all would seem to make it all the more important that Education programs abandon their "diversity"-obsessed pedagogy and actually offer meaningful curricula. But that's an avenue that NCATE doesn't want to explore.
Cilbulka has also acknowledged complaints from Education faculty that NCATE's accreditation procedures were too burdensome. In the event, the organization put off all accreditation visits for one year during the economic downturn. This decision might not be as meaningful as it seems, as NCATE's 2008 summary report suggests its standards aren't too tough: "Ninety percent of the institutions hosting regular first or continuing accreditation visits were accredited without a qualification. Ninety-six percent of the institutions seeking to remove a condition or provision were successful." [emphases added]
Do these changes mean that the dangers exposed in the dispositions controversy have passed? Of course not: all the faculty who improperly attempted to purge students based on political beliefs remain in place. But an important tool in the ideologues' efforts---their ability to claim that they are merely enforcing standards demanded by a national accreditation body---has gone by the boards.